“I’m gonna need a red velvet cake, Daisy.”
Daisy’s only response was a slight nod. She was too busy hurriedly transferring a dozen gooey, swollen cinnamon buns that were dripping with white icing from a baking sheet to the decorative platter in the display case. The baking sheet hadn’t cooled as much as she had expected, and she was holding it with a flimsy flour sack towel instead of the thick protective oven mitt that she usually used.
“Gosh, those sure smell good.”
“They are good.” Having deposited the last sticky soldier on the platter, Daisy spun around and dropped the baking sheet on the work table behind her with a clatter. She blew on her overly warm, overly pink palm. “Good and hot.”
“Maybe I should get some of those too.”
“How many would you like?” Turning back to the display case, she reached for a piece of waxed paper and a foldable bakery box. “I assume you want to take them with?”
“I … Well, I…”
The hesitation was long enough so that Daisy looked up at him with a touch of annoyance. “It’s not a difficult question, Bobby. How many cinnamon buns do you want? And are you planning on eating any of them here?”
Bobby hesitated some more and shuffled his boots. It was typical behavior for him. Daisy had known Robert Balsam since they were together in kindergarten, and he had never been the sharpest tool in the shed. He was the last one to learn how to tie his own shoelaces. The only one to eat an entire box of crayons, repeatedly. And the first child in the history of the Pittsylvania County school system to have a sense of direction so bad that he managed to get himself lost while standing in the middle of the playground at recess, also repeatedly. Now at the supposedly mature age of twenty-seven, Bobby’s favorite activities were pretty much the same as they had always been—drinking, shooting, and not thinking too hard. Daisy didn’t ordinarily care how long it took him to reach a decision, but it was Saturday, and the bakery was especially busy that morning. She didn’t have time for him to deliberate whether his indubitable hangover would be better cured by a couple of chocolate-glazed doughnuts or an apple turnover.
“Okay, Bobby.” She set the box and waxed paper aside with a shrug. “I’ve got work to do. The frosting doesn’t pipe itself. Give me a holler when you’ve made up your mind.”
To her surprise, he replied almost immediately.
“Can you do red velvet cake, Daisy?”
“Of course I can do red velvet cake.”
“Are you sure?”
She frowned at him. “Yes, I’m sure.”
Bobby shuffled his boots again. “But the place is called Sweetie Pies. I thought you might only have pies.”
Rolling her eyes, Daisy gestured toward the delectable contents of the large glass display case in front of him, followed by the plethora of cookies, brownies, muffins, and scones all bagged and tied with colorful ribbons and organized in neat rows on the shelves along the wall to his right. “Do you see only pies?”
“We’ve been open for over a month now. You’ve been in here at least ten times since then. You’ve tried every type of cupcake I make. And now you’re suddenly confused about pies and red velvet cake?” Daisy’s frown deepened. “What’s going on, Bobby?”
“It’s about R—”
He was interrupted by the clank of the rusty bell that was strung up above the front door of the bakery. A gust of fresh autumn air accompanied Beulah inside.
“Hey there!” Daisy smiled warmly at her friend. “What brings you by? I thought you had lots of appointments scheduled for this morning.”
“I did.” Beulah made an effort to smooth down her tangled, twisted curls, but she had little success. Her flaming red mop was in a permanent state of unruliness. Today was especially bad. She looked like Medusa with a double heap of windblown snakes.
“Are you done already? Did the time go by that fast?” Daisy glanced at her watch.
“Oh, I’m done, but it’s not because I’ve finished with all my appointments.”
Beulah swung a sturdy leg over the first emerald green stool in line at the counter and plopped herself down on it. Before becoming Sweetie Pies, the bakery had been a diner. The kind of good old-fashioned country establishment that took pride in serving first-rate baked beans, collard greens, and authentic chicken stew. The long white counter and vinyl-topped stools were vestiges that Daisy and her business partner, Brenda, had neither the money nor the inclination to remove. They had both been waitresses at the diner before its owner died, and they felt a strong sentimental attachment to it.
“I’m done,” Beulah repeated. “Only I never got started. When I opened the door to the salon this morning, there was two feet of water on the floor.”
“What! How did that happen?”
“I haven’t a clue. I couldn’t see a thing wrong. There wasn’t any busted pipe or leaky hose. At least not that I could find. Nothin’ was gushing out of nowhere. But there was clearly a problem—a big one—considering that I was wading around in a flood up to my knees. So I called Connor Woodley over at the hardware store. You remember him, don’t you? He’s the one who did all the plumbing and wiring for the salon originally. I was so happy when I got him on the phone. I was afraid that since it’s Saturday and the middle of October, he might be out scouting hunting sites for when deer season opens next month. And I know Aunt Emily wouldn’t want me getting anyone but Connor. She’s particular in that way.”
“She’s particular in a lot of ways,” Daisy said.
Beulah laughed in agreement. Aunt Emily wasn’t actually their aunt, but they had known her for as long as they had known each other, which was nearly all their lives. Emily Tosh was the grand old proprietor of the grand old Tosh Inn. There wasn’t much tourism in their little corner of rural southwestern Virginia, so the inn was inhabited mostly by local strays, who for one reason or another found themselves otherwise without a home. Both Daisy and Beulah lived at the inn, along with Daisy’s sickly momma. Beulah’s hair salon occupied a former potting shed on one edge of the property, making it necessary for her to consider Aunt Emily’s views regarding any major repairs. Aunt Emily was always generous with her advice and opinions. Taken on the whole, a bit too generous, and more often than not, it wasn’t so clear whether that advice tended to be brilliant or batty.
“Is Connor at the salon now?” Daisy asked Beulah.
“No, he can’t come until the afternoon. He said he’s alone at the store this morning. Duke went down to Tightsqueeze for a delivery, and Connor has to wait for him to get back. So of course I had to cancel all my appointments for the day. It’s not like I can ask the ladies to slap on a bikini and swim up to a chair. Plus, it’s impossible to do a shampoo or color when there’s no pressure in the sink. Hopefully, it’ll be a quick and easy fix, but,” she grimaced, “somehow I doubt it. I have a bad feeling that this is going to be long and expensive.”
Having recently completed her own renovations to the bakery, Daisy nodded with sympathy.
Beulah sighed. “Well, there’s no point in worrying about it now. That’s why I came here. You know my philosophy. Whatever else happens in this miserable life, there’s still good news in the form of sugar and cinnamon. Please tell me you’re not sold out of snickerdoodles.”
“Never. I’ve always got my special secret stashes.” Daisy reached down into the cabinet below the cash register. “Shortbread for my momma. Lemon bars for Aunt Emily.” She pulled out a pink plastic box with a matching snap-on lid. “And snickerdoodles for you.”
With the enthusiasm of a parched desert camel suddenly unearthing a cool pool of water, Beulah grabbed the box, yanked off its lid, and shoved a pair of cookies into her mouth. Bobby eyed the box with interest, but Beulah paid not the slightest attention to him. He might as well have been a bucket of sand. The first two snickerdoodles were swiftly followed by a third. As she chewed, Beulah glanced around the bakery.
“Bless you and your secret stash, Daisy,” she murmured gratefully. “Without it, I might have had to resort to something with peanut butter in it. This place is packed tighter than a jar of pickled onions today.”
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” Daisy beamed. “I can’t complain. That’s for sure. The whole week has been great. Tons of work, of course, but great.”
Beulah studied the pastry-eating, coffee-swilling crowd more closely. “I don’t recognize a single person in here. Are they all from that meeting—or whatever it is—going on in the mountains?”
“I think so. Lots of them seem to know each other. And if you look in the parking lot, the cars are mostly from out of state.”
“How long is it supposed to continue for?”
“Another week. At least, that’s what somebody told me. And let me just say that another week with this kind of business would be fantastic.” Daisy dropped her voice discreetly. “They all get breakfast in here every morning and take along piles of snacks for the day. The shelves are stocked full now, but by the time the group clears out later, they’ll be empty. I can barely keep up.”
“What about Brenda?” Beulah selected another cookie from her box. “Shouldn’t she be helping?”
“She’s in the kitchen, and she is not just helping, she’s a baking dynamo. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. I might be the one with the good family recipes and the finer touch for putting together the fancier stuff, but Brenda can mix and measure, scoop and proof like she just graduated with honors from cooking school. And she loves to clean, which is a real plus, considering that there is always a layer of flour dust on everything. It’s much fussier cleaning now with the bakery than it was with the diner.”
“I don’t know about flour dust, but you’d probably have less cat hair flying around if you didn’t let Blot wander at will.”
“Blot.” Beulah pointed a crumb-covered finger toward her ankle.
Daisy leaned over the counter and saw Brenda’s humongous black cat rubbing up against Beulah’s sneakers, purring heartily for his share of the treats. Blot was equal parts spoiled and fat, precisely because he found himself so frequently rewarded for his friendliness. He was such a monstrous mass of shaggy fur when he sprawled out on the floor that he looked like a giant ink stain, hence his name.
“Oh, jeez. What are you doing here, Blot? Brenda knows she’s not supposed to bring you to work.” With a quick step, Daisy scooped up the offending kitty and carried him away from her customers as unobtrusively as possible. “You are a major health code violation, sweetheart.” She pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen, set Blot down on the other side, and hastily shut the door again before he could slip back through.
“Isn’t he just as much of a violation in there?” Beulah said, returning her attention to her snickerdoodles.
“Probably more—if we’re being technical about it—because it’s a food preparation area. But I don’t really have a choice. I can’t put him outside. He wouldn’t last five minutes, even in the parking lot. Blot is a serious scaredy-cat. Everything puts him on edge and sends him scampering for the hills. Everything except for food, mind you. He’s got the weirdest taste too. Last week Brenda offered him a stale piece of carrot cake, and he went crazy for it. It might as well have been a hunk of tuna wrapped in a sheet of bacon.”
Bobby meekly cleared his throat. “About the red velvet cake, Daisy…”
For the first time since her arrival, Beulah turned toward him. She surveyed Bobby’s appearance with a sharp hazel eye, then gave an amused snort. “Whenever I see you, Bobby, you’re always wearing the same thing. You’ve been wearing the same thing since high school. A tired old T-shirt, shredded old jeans, and dirty old boots. It’s been almost ten years now. Don’t you think it’s about time for an upgrade?”
He blinked at her. There was no anger or resentment in his expression. Bobby rarely exhibited such strong emotions. Aunt Emily often compared him to a hamster. Kind of cute. Generally harmless. Prone to making foolish choices. In the hamster’s case, that meant running in never-ending circles on a plastic wheel. In Bobby’s case, it meant playing with loaded firearms while guzzling corn whiskey.
“Laurel likes my jeans,” he replied. “And my boots. She told me so just this morning.”
“Who?” Beulah said.
“Laurel,” he repeated.
Beulah squinted at Daisy. “Who’s Laurel?”
“No idea. Never heard of her.” Curious, she was about to ask Bobby for an explanation when Beulah announced, “Blot’s back.”
“Either my sneakers smell really good because I stepped in something icky coming over here, or he’s awfully determined to get one of these cookies from me.”
Breaking a snickerdoodle in half, Beulah handed a piece to Daisy as she trotted around the counter and scooped up the begging kitty a second time.
“Here you go.” Daisy gave Blot the treat, then once again pushed him through the swinging door into the kitchen. “Now I hope you’re happy and will stay where you’re supposed to.”
Beulah shifted her focus back to Bobby. “All right. I’ll bite. Who’s this Laurel? Should I know her? Have I met her?”
He shook his head. “Naw. I don’t think so.”
“So how do you know her? Where did you meet her?”
“I … She…” Bobby seemed uncertain how to answer.
“Oh, wait,” Beulah said. “I forgot about that weaselly brother of yours. I should have guessed. She’s his newest plaything, isn’t she?”
Bobby started to respond, but Daisy didn’t hear him. She felt a warm pressure against her leg, looked down, and found Blot wrapping his thick tail around her calf.
“Good Lord! How on earth do you keep getting out here?”
Exasperated, Daisy lifted the big bundle of fur and marched toward the kitchen. As much as she liked Blot, she couldn’t take the risk that her fragile, fledgling business—the only means of financial support for her and her momma and Brenda—might get shut down because of him. Cats were not allowed in bakeries. There was no exception in the Virginia Department of Health regulations for extra-sweet, extra-fuzzy felines with burgeoning pastry addictions.
This time she didn’t simply deposit Blot on the other side of the swinging door. She had to talk to Brenda, to insist that in the future Blot remain at home and that she figure out a way to keep him in the kitchen and out of sight from the customers—not to mention possible clandestine health inspectors—for the rest of the day. With the cat tucked under one arm like a lumpy sack of potatoes, Daisy shoved open the door with her elbow. She took no more than three steps into the kitchen and promptly halted. Blot dropped to the ground and immediately scurried back to Beulah.
“He’s out here again, Daisy,” she called.
Daisy didn’t reply.
Beulah rose from her stool. “Blot’s made another dash in search of treats. Should I bring him to you?”
She still didn’t reply.
“Daisy?” Leaving behind the cat but not the cookies, Beulah headed toward the kitchen. “Do you need any help? I’d be happy to do something if you want an extra hand.”
Bobby shuffled after her, mumbling incoherently about red velvet cake. Beulah snapped at him in irritation, “Quit blathering, Bobby.”
“I need a red velvet cake.”
“So buy one. Nobody’s saying you can’t.”
“But Daisy’s gonna have to—”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Both his tongue and his boots stopped moving the instant he passed through the swinging door behind Beulah. The box in her hand fell to the floor. Bits of broken snickerdoodles went flying around the room, but she didn’t pick them up. Neither did Bobby or Daisy. The three were frozen in speechless surprise.
Brenda stood in front of the oversize refrigerator. Although it was wide open, she made no attempt to close it. She didn’t move a muscle, not even to adjust the apron that was hanging off one shoulder. The tortoiseshell clip that normally kept her black hair high up on her head in a tight bun sagged at her neck, clasping only a few graying strands. Brenda’s face was as white as the smashed eggshells that were dripping from the shelves behind her. It was in sharp contrast to her hands. She had perpetually cracked and peeling hands, but today the worn skin wasn’t visible. Instead it was covered with blood. A thick coat of vivid scarlet blood, dripping just like the eggs, oozing down Brenda’s fingers and over her palms, spreading along her wrists to her arms. It came from the chef’s knife that she was holding. The stainless steel blade looked as though it had been dipped into a pot of crimson paint. A matching crimson puddle was slowly growing around the man lying motionless at her feet.
Finally, Brenda raised her bulging eyes from the man to Daisy.
“I—I think I killed him,” she said.
Copyright © 2014 by Carol Miller